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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, July 15, 1985, Page 6


The Great Krytron Caper

By Najwa S'ad

On May 12, Newsweek magazine disclosed that a federal grand jury in Los Angeles was investigating California businessman Richard Kelly Smyth on charges of violating U.S. export laws by shipping between 800 and 810 sophisticated timing devices called krytrons to a company in Israel without State Department approval. In addition to their numerous civilian applications, krytrons can be used as elegant triggering devices for nuclear weapons and limited exports are permitted only under a strict licensing procedure. Newsweek suggested the case may have "serious implications for U.S.-Israeli relations."

Over the next several days, major newspapers including the Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Christian Science Monitor and the Los Angeles Times reported the story briefly, and pointed out that pending legislation proposed to cut aid to any country which violated U.S. export laws for the production of its own nuclear weapons. Journalists also noted that the proposed legislation would not be retroactive and, in general, set aside their watchdog, investigative fervor. Nevertheless, the jury handed down a 30-count indictment against Smyth on May 16 and the trial is scheduled to begin August 12.

Basically unchanged since they were invented in 1934 for use in high-speed photography, krytrons are electronic switches capable of triggering a nuclear explosive device. They retail in the U.S. at about $75 per unit, and are manufactured in over 40 variations by EG&G Company of Wellesley, Massachusetts. Civilian applications include use in the manufacture of copying machines, laser equipment, scientific instrumentation, strobe lighting and oil exploration equipment.

Krytrons Shipped Out As 'Radio Tubes'

Because of their nuclear applications, however, krytrons are on the U.S. Munitions list, which means that they cannot be exported without State Department approval and a license. E G & G's invoices clearly warn the purchaser that krytrons cannot be exported without a license.

Because they resemble old-style radio tubes, Smyth exported the krytrons as "pentodes" or radio tubes, marked G-Dest or general destination, no license required. The indictment charges Smyth with 15 counts of violating the Arms Export Control Act by not obtaining appropriate licenses from the Department of State; and with 15 counts of making false statements to disguise 15 shipments made between January 1980 and December 1982.

Smyth is an avionics consultant who, at the time of the grand jury decision, was at a NATO meeting serving on a research committee on aerospace guidance systems. He has consulted for NASA on the space shuttle program and appears to be far from the average hi-tech exporter. His firm, Milco International Incorporated, provides aviation expertise for U.S. government defense contracts, besides facilitating export sales. Milco International has a special arrangement with Israeli merchant Aaron Milchan, a partner in the Israeli firm, Heli Trading Company, which imported the krytrons. Milchan allegedly worked with Milco to obtain the krytrons for delivery to Israel and then sold them to the Israeli government. Milchan also shares in the profits of Milco, along with Smyth family members and several friends who are stockholders.

Operation Exodus Strikes Too Late

Smyth was under investigation by the U.S. Customs Service Operation Exodus program for two years. This program, motivated by the Reagan Administration's desire to stem the flow of high technology to the Soviet Bloc countries, began in 1981 with the one-time transfer of $30 million from the Defense Department to the Customs Service. Under the Operation Exodus guidelines, Customs agents are charged with seeking and intercepting shipments that are being exported illegally. Between 1982 and 1984, the program led to at least 563 arrests, 588 indictments and 350 convictions.

Although the Operation Exodus program was launched in October 1981, Smyth was allegedly still exporting krytrons through December 1982. No krytrons were ever seized, among fifteen separate shipments between 1980 and 1982.

An earlier smuggling attempt involving krytrons was discovered last April, when U.S. Customs agents in Houston detained Nazir Ahmed Vaid, a Pakistani businessman. Vaid was charged with attempting to ship 50 krytrons to Pakistan. He was given a suspended sentence and deported. At that time, the Reagan Administration was purportedly reluctant to permit the prosecution to use all available evidence to pursue the case more fully.

Sources on Capitol Hill, however, are convinced that the Administration feared damaging exposure of its export control intelligence services and, for this reason, limited the use of information in the investigative files. This time, according to government officials, the Administration is intent on seeking a successful prosecution of Smyth—although it remains to be seen whether Administration officials would be ready to indict Israel in connection with the incident.

No Aid for Illegal Exporters?

Congress has also been cracking down recently on the export of nuclear weapons technology. In May, the Senate passed an amendment to the foreign aid authorization bill stipulating that foreign aid funds "may not be used to finance construction of, the operation or maintenance of, or the supplying of fuel for, any nuclear facility in a foreign country unless the President certifies to the Congress that the country in question is a party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, cooperates fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency, and pursues nuclear non-proliferation policies consistent with those of the United States."

In the House, legislation introduced by Representative Stephen Solarz (D-NY) would bar U.S. aid to any country violating U.S. export laws for the production of nuclear explosive devices. It is believed that such legislation, if passed, would not be applicable retroactively to the krytron incident. Nevertheless, Solarz has apparently come under considerable pressure from pro-Israel constituents, who fear that Israel might someday be faced with a cutoff of aid.

Since the press has covered the krytron affair only superficially so far, there are numerous unanswered questions awaiting the attention of investigative reporters.

What Was Israel Up To?

What, for example, was the precise role of the Israeli government in the smuggling of the krytrons and in what way has that role violated U.S. laws? Will the United States allow its laws to be violated without imposing any penalties on Israel? It appears that the United States has only Israel's word that it has not used the krytrons for nuclear purposes, since it does not seem to have accounted fully for the krytrons it obtained. Will the United States allow Israel merely to return the remaining "unused" krytrons, as Israel says it is willing to do? Will it demand that all of the krytrons be returned, or require that Israel submit license applications that will provide information on the end-use of the smuggled krytrons Israel retains?

It will be interesting to contrast U.S. press handling of this summer's two espionage stories: The Walker affair and the Smyth affair. Virtually any American reader or television viewer can identify the various members of the Walker family, and point out who is and who is not involved. How much do we know, so far, about Messrs. Smyth and Milchan?

Najwa S'ad is a research analyst with the Middle East Policy and Research Center (MEPARC), a publication of the National Association of Arab Americans. She specializes in legislative affairs.